Tokyo — Russia and China both sent high-level delegations tothis week as the autocratic state marks 70 years since an armistice agreement ended fighting in the Korean War. Leader Kim Jong Un welcomed Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chinese Politburo member Li Hongzhong in the first high-level visits by any foreign officials to North Korea since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
North Korea had blocked all travel in and out of the country since 2020, so this week’s visits are a clear sign the country is opening up again.
North Korean state media coverage focused on the Russian envoy, who was quoted as saying the two sides met in a “cordial atmosphere overflowing with militant friendship.”
Russian officials haven’t typically received invites to what North Korea calls its “Victory Day” ceremonies. This year’s invitation to Shoigu and his delegation came as the United Nations noted that Moscow was once again exporting oil to North Korea, and amid claims that Pyongyang has been selling the Russians weapons for the war in Ukraine.
North Korea’s weapons, and the Kims
Photos shared by North Korean media from earlier in the week show Kim giving Shoigu a personal guided tour of the North’s weapons and missiles at an arms exhibition. The pictures seemed to highlight Pyongyang’s new drones — one possibly modeled after the U.S. Global Hawk reconnaissance drone.
The exhibit also featured a Hwasong 17 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and a more advanced Hwasong 18, which is powered by solid fuel and thus more easily deployed. Both missiles have beenthis year.
North Korea normally stages a massive military parade showcasing its latest weapons on the anniversary of the armistice, and while it can take a day or more for images from the spectacle to emerge from the country, experts will be keen to scrutinized whatever hardware is put on display this year. South Korean media reported Thursday that the parade had begun in Pyongyang, but there was no confirmation from North Korean officials or media.
Aside from upgrades to its long-range Hwasong missiles, there’s interest in where the Russian and Chinese delegations will be seated during the parade — particularly their relative proximity to Kim.
There’s also interest in another figure within the Kim family who’s received a surprising amount of attention from North Korean media of late —, who’s believed to be around 10 years old.
Exactly why she has appeared so frequently in public remains a mystery, but one theory is that her presence is meant to underscore the longevity of the Kim dynasty.
Seating arrangements and any more prominent activities for Kim’s powerful sister Kim Yo Jong, who’s issued warnings on behalf of the regime over the last year as she assumes a more front-facing role, may also be of interest to North Korea-watchers.
The fate of U.S. soldier Travis King
North Korea has remained completely silent on the status ofsince the young soldier suddenly ran across the border into the North during a group tour of the demilitarized zone on July 19.
Observers say it could take weeks, if not months, for the North Koreans to decide his fate, and it has not been clear whether King wants to defect or return to the U.S.
Missile tests, threats and warnings
This week, the U.S. sent a second nuclear-armed submarine to South Korea, the USS Annapolis in a move likely to draw further condemnation from North Korea and possibly more missile tests.
Earlier this month, North Korea’s official, state-run news agency slammed the planned deployment of U.S. strategic nuclear assets to South Korea as “the most undisguised nuclear blackmail” and warned that such deployments posed a threat to global security.
“The present situation clearly proves that the situation of the Korean Peninsula is coming closer to the threshold of nuclear conflict due to the U.S. provocative military action,” it said.
The leader’s sister Kim Yo Jong claimed about two weeks ago that the country’s warplanes had repelled a U.S. spy plane flying over North Korea’s exclusive economic zone, warning of “shocking” but unspecified consequences if the U.S. continued reconnaissance activities in the area.
South Korea’s military denied the U.S. had sent any spy planes into North Korean airspace, insisting American forces were merely conducting standard reconnaissance activities in coordination with South Korea.
With tension running high between the U.S. and North Korea, the visits by the top Russian and Chinese delegations will be taken by the Kim regime as an opportunity to show it is not as isolated on the world stage as Washington would like after years of sanctions.
The White House has announced, meanwhile, that it will host a first-ever, high-level trilateral summit with Japan and South Korea in Washington this summer — an attempt to cement ties with America’s closest regional allies.